3 ways to de-stress this holiday season

We’ve passed Thanksgiving. That means the holiday craziness is in full swing now. There seem to be two kinds of personalities prevalent around the holiday season: Cheerful or snarling. It’s easy to get frazzled. To let your nerves and anxiety get the best of us. But it’s important to manage stress especially for our healthy aging. We feel calmer and more able to tackle future problems, plus our immune system can even be stronger when we experience less stress. Here are some easy tips to turn your snarls into grins. Your 3 ways to de-stress this holiday season:

Plan for the tough stuff

Don’t have your shopping done yet? List all the people who you have to buy gifts for. Have an idea of what you’ll get them and plan your shopping trip(s) accordingly. And don’t forget the wrapping paper or gift bags. Now schedule your shopping runs and wrapping parties. If you’re cooking, plan your menus and shopping for that too. Chef Alex Guarnaschelli recently shared her timeline for prepping for Thanksgiving. Take a lesson from Chef Alex! Plan for the tough stuff.

Have a plan to de-stress

Easy ways to de-stress this holiday season.
A short guided meditation can also help you de-stress

Inevitably, some things will get to you. Your annoying student went one step too far. Or your mom poked her nose into your family’s business one time too many. So, have a plan to distract yourself from the stress when you’re feeling the tension. Play a short game of Fishdom on your phone. Take a bath. Go for a walk. Exercise. Dance to your favorite tune. It won’t take long. 5 to 10 minutes should be enough time to feel calmer.

Recognize things you’re grateful for

The Thanksgiving holiday may be in the rear view mirror, but being thankful should be an everyday occurrence. You may be frustrated with some things in your life. And you may feel something akin to desperation about others. But there will always be things you’re grateful for. Remind yourself of them. Yes, some days it’s harder than others to see the bright spots. But they’re there if you open your eyes. Feeling gratitude in your life leads to optimism and hope.

The American Heart Association has identified these and other activities to manage stress. But these easy 3 will get you started.

3 tips to glide through the holiday season. There will still be stress – no getting around it. But you’ll be prepared and ready to meet it head on.

4 Steps to compassionate resilience

Being mentally tough, or “resilient,” is what all the psychology “experts” are talking about in the last couple of years. While it’s crucial to our well-being and healthy aging to be able to bounce back when the going gets tough, it’s also important to stay kind – what I call “compassionate resilience.”

Awareness

If you’re feeling panicked by events in the world, the first step is to be aware of that feeling, and then how you’re going to interact with those events. Is it panic? Or overwhelm? Are you frustrated? If you’re an observer, observe without judgment of yourself. If you’re a doer, figure out how you can make the situation better – first for yourself and then, perhaps, for others. 

Be aware of how your feelings affect you. Identify them – is it fear or anxiety that you’re feeling? Why? How will the happenings far away affect you here and now? Or here and later. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, identifying the things that are causing that feeling will help you to start on unraveling the tangle of burdens that you feel pressing upon you. Nurse practitioner Deborah Stamm of the Center for Health and Integrative Medicine at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital says that naming the emotion “lessens the intensity and reminds you that you are in control of the emotion, not the other way around. It keeps you connected with your logical brain, and you are better able to think of new ways to handle situations that arise.”

Action 

Taking action will help you turn your narrative around. Write your Congressperson!
Taking action will help you turn your narrative around.

If that outcome is not something we want, how can you change it? Changing the narrative from, “I’m scared” to “I’m going to write to my Congressperson” will make you feel that you’re accomplishing something worthwhile. You’re being mindful of the moment, you dispassionately thought about the situation and decided on a course of action. At the same time, though, be sure not to let yourself think too much about the future. Do what you can now and put the situation aside until something changes or something else can be done about it

Be grateful

Stamm says another crucial aspect of resilience is gratitude. She says our brains are wired for negativity but, in contrast, optimism leads to resilience. We have to work on our positivity, to balance our brains. See my article “Five Ways to Maintain Positivity” for a start. Stamm recommends writing in a gratitude journal for a start on triggering positivity every day.

Be kind to yourself

Finally, to boost your resilience, be kind to yourself. If others talk about you in negative terms, don’t believe them! It’s easy to be down on yourself. We all do it from time to time. “I’m too fat.” “I shouldn’t eat that chocolate.” “My hair is terrible.” It’s easy to get caught in that trap. But – don’t! Eliminate that negative self-talk! You are worthwhile. The things you do are amazing! Believe that. 

Be grateful for the great things in your life. Believe that you’re worth every good thing that comes your way. Identify your feelings, especially the negative ones so that you can create a plan of action to turn your own narrative around. All this will lead you to compassionate resilience. You’ll be mentally tough – but still kind and compassionate.

Queen Elizabeth’s habits for healthy aging

Queen Elizabeth practiced many habits for healthy aging during her long life.

The world has been mourning the loss of Queen Elizabeth II of Britain, but also celebrating her healthy long life. The Queen was in the spotlight for most of her 96 years, and was working until almost the end. How did she do it? Did she just have good genes? Or did she practice habits for healthy aging?

The answer to the question is probably a mixture of both good genes and good habits! The Queen’s mother lived to be 101 years old, but Queen Elizabeth did have great habits for healthy aging!

Habits for healthy aging from an expert

Dr. Kevin Koo, family medicine physician at Advocate Medical group, says, “As someone who cares for many people in their 80s, 90s and even 100’s, the patients who are the healthiest are those who are on top of their health and well-being. They go to doctors’ appointments. These patients socialize often.” They read, travel, volunteer and exercise.

Eat right

First off – Dr. Koo says to eat a healthy, balanced diet. Queen Elizabeth typically ate small meals throughout the day, and her meals included grilled lean meats and lots of vegetables. But she also indulged occasionally in dark chocolate and biscuits. There’s nothing off-limits in a healthy diet. As I always say, “Everything in moderation!” And Dr. Koo agrees: “balance and not overindulging in anything are important when it comes to your diet.”

Social interaction

The queen met with lots of people on a daily basis. For the rest of us, feeling connected to others is important for our physical and mental well-being – from increased brain function to decreased depression. The pandemic isolated many people, and we’re only now realizing how detrimental that isolation has been – especially to seniors, many of whom were unable to interact with others. 

Exercise

We know the Queen walked the castle grounds and she walked her dogs. In her early years, Queen Elizabeth also enjoyed swimming.

Spend time outside

Fresh air and sunshine can boost not only your spirits but your health as well. We may not have castle grounds to wander, but we can walk through our neighborhoods and get the benefits.

Pray or meditate

Prayer or meditation can reduce stress and improve your outlook. Meditation was one way I mentioned that naturally fights depression. And Queen Elizabeth frequently mentioned prayer in her televised comments. 

Engage in your passion projects

Whether it’s volunteering for a charity or engaging in a hobby, this is another way to find a productive outlet and have more social interaction. 

Never too late

Dr. Koo reminds us that there’s no time limit on healthy aging. It’s never too late to start eating right, start an exercise program, or start volunteering for a worthy cause.

Don’t use visualization to achieve your dreams

You may have seen “experts” talk about using visualization to achieve your dreams. Just picture yourself living your best life on that tropical island and it will happen. Nope. Not even close. Or visualize yourself running a marathon. Not going to work. Don’t use visualization to achieve your dreams. It doesn’t work that way. Wishing it doesn’t make it come true. 

Visualization is all-or-nothing

Dr. Irena O’Brien, a cognitive neuroscientist, explains why: “Visualizing a successful outcome encourages us to think in all-or-nothing terms. This is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing. Thinking about goals in their entirety can inspire fear and overwhelm that can halt our progress.”

Visualizing success is as real as actually achieving that success to your brain, and it reduces your energy to continue working toward your goal. That’s because your brain believes that you’ve already achieved your goal. Studies have measured this drop in energy using systolic blood pressure. So, when you’re visualizing completing the marathon, your brain believes that you’ve actually accomplished it.

No easy way

Fran on treadmill. Visualizing the steps to get to the big goal.
Visualizing the steps to reach the big goal.

Visualizing standing on the podium at the finish line of that marathon makes us believe that there’s an easy way to get where we want to go. That we don’t have to do the hard work that will ensure that conclusion.

And we know that’s not true. We have to do the work. How am I going to run 26 miles if I get out of breath by the end of my block?

So how do we get there?

Dr. O’Brien agrees with the strategy I outlined: If you have a big goal in mind, break it up and figure a way to get those smaller chunks done. Using our marathon example, we can establish a plan to be sure we’re ready for that race. If the big race is six months away, we can schedule our training week-by week and day-by-day to give us plenty of time. Of course if you’re serious about your marathon running, you’ll want to check with a trainer specializing in long-distances for that plan. 

For our marathon example, we can schedule a one mile run twice the first week, and strength training a couple of other days during the week, and build up from there. If you use a treadmill for most of your training, be sure to include real road work for some. The conditions are different, and you’ll want to get used to running with wind and weather.

Visualize the steps

Instead of visualizing your successful outcome, visualize the steps. Visualize yourself running, and passing the one-mile mark and still feeling strong. This will work because you’ve outlined those smaller steps that are manageable and perfectly achievable.

And, finally – just start. Don’t spend too much time crafting the steps you need to take to achieve your ultimate goal. Dr. O’Brien says that “mindset is built through action.” Once you get going, you’ll see that your first step is achievable, and so will the next and the next. Use this technique to achieve all your goals – fitness, as well as others.

Remember – don’t use visualization to achieve your dreams. Your dreams will come with those smaller steps.

Manage stress to boost your immunity

A big part of healthy aging has to be managing stress. As we get older, our immune system doesn’t work as well as it used to. Along with our senses of balance, hearing and eyesight. It turns out that stress plays a big part in compromising our immunity. We don’t need added pressures on our immune system, so it’s even more important to manage our stress as we get older. And it stands to reason that if we can manage our stress, we boost our immunity.

Stress affects immune system aging

Recently, a large study researched how stress affects the premature aging of the immune system. Almost 6 thousand people age 50 and up were surveyed about stress in their lives – the questions involved family, job, finances and social discrimination issues. Scientists also measure their T-cell levels. T-cells, or lymphocytes, protect against bacteria, viruses, cancer and other harmful cells that promote age-related harmful conditions (like osteoporosis, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease).

“The researchers concluded that chronic stress, stressful life events and higher lifetime exposure to social stressors may contribute to accelerating immune aging.” 

Molly Ireland, nurse practitioner at Aurora Health Center, says that while everyone experiences stress, the ways that we manage it can reduce its negative effects. I identified ways to reduce stress some time ago, and some are recapped here.

Manage stress to boost your immunity

So, how can we manage stress to boost our immunity?

Exercise plays a big part in how I manage stress.
You know how I manage stress – exercise plays a big part.

First off – make sure you prioritize you. Eat well and get plenty of sleep. And when you “eat well,” make sure you get plenty of vegetables and fruit, cut down on processed carbohydrates and sugars, and eat as much protein as you need. Eat more fiber and less fat, according to Ireland.

If your doctor wants you to lose weight, take this recommendation to heart. Being at a healthy weight will boost your immune system too. 

Exercise. Yes. Your doctor thinks it’s a great idea, too. Here’s how to start: https://fitness-over-50.com/2021/07/how-do-you-start-to-exercise/

Take time for you. Pursue hobbies you love. Sometimes, just being alone can help you manage your stress. But see friends and family too, because social interaction is important.

Break goals down into smaller, more manageable chunks so you don’t feel overwhelmed.

Get help when you need it.

Don’t compare yourself to others

If you follow fitness “gurus” on social media, you’ll likely see the phrases, “Go for the burn,” or “Give it your all,” or “Don’t save anything.” And you’ll probably see people on videos doing running so much faster than you can, or doing insane things with their bodies. Don’t compare yourself to others. Everyone is at a different point in their fitness journey. No one else’s body is like yours. You have different experiences than everyone else. 

It’s normal to compare ourselves to our peers. Psychologists call it “social comparison theory.” It’s an attempt to understand ourselves and our place in society. Juliana Breines Ph.D. says that social comparisons can be helpful when “we remember that even the most successful people struggle in some ways and are just as human and fallible as we are—and that, for all our foibles and shortcomings, we are just as capable of greatness.”

But it’s easy to fall into the trap of coming down hard on ourselves when we compare ourselves to others. “I’m not as good.” Or, “I’ll never be able to do that.”

Be reasonable

On the treadmill, I run for me and do not compare myself to others.
On the treadmill

I used to see videos of people running, sweating buckets, going faster than I thought any human had a right to go just to exercise. I thought, “They’re crazy. Running is for the birds.” Years ago I could never see myself running for exercise. And then I took up agility with my dogs. In order to succeed, most handlers need to be fit and able to run. Now, no person can run as fast as most dogs can run, but an agility handler has to be in the proper position to give their dog direction. In class, I was out of breath in no time. So I thought that I should put the treadmill in the basement to use and work on my stamina. I began to use the treadmill for 20 minutes twice a week. At first I couldn’t run for longer than 15 seconds at a time at a very low speed, walking between running intervals. I had to motivate myself to run because it was hard at first and I had no really good reason to do it otherwise.

But I persisted and built up the time and speed. I still can’t run for more than a minute at a time, but that’s OK. An agility run is usually less than a minute. And now my speed is over 7 miles an hour at my fastest. I’m not where I need to be yet, but that’s OK. I know that running on an agility course is much different than on a treadmill, but it’s a start.

It doesn’t matter how fast the other person is going

It doesn’t matter how fast that instructor is running. You’re you. You may be older than that person. And you may need to work on your endurance. Your body should get used to the movements before you intensify them. If you’re just starting, it would be a very bad idea to go all out at first. You’d end up injuring yourself and unable to do it again in a couple of days. If you’re serious about that goal, like I am about running, consistency is key. You don’t want to start over again next week.

The point is, be kind to yourself. Start at a reasonable level for you. And challenge yourself. In your quest for healthy aging, have a goal. Push yourself – not crazily, but enough that you’re able to see consistent improvements. Your goal should not be easy to achieve, but it should be achievable.

I do different things with my exercise routines. I try different yoga poses. Sometimes I fall on my face (but I practice on a nice thick mat). I try to achieve that Side Plank Star periodically, just to see if I still can. All part of my quest for healthy aging. You may think that’s weird. And that’s OK.

Your goal is yours

Your goal should not be mine. Running fast shouldn’t be your goal. (Unless, of course, you really want to run fast.) But it’s mine. Don’t compare yourself to others. If you want to be able to do five push-ups and you feel embarrassed that you can’t even do one, don’t be. You’re you. Your arms and shoulders are put on differently than the person whose video you saw online who could crank out fifteen and not break a sweat. Your core may not be as strong. But you can work at it and, if you’re persistent, and that’s what you really want, you’ll do it. You’ll modify moves at first and persist. Don’t compare yourself to others. Because everyone is different.

Lift weights at my age?

There are loads of fitness myths and misinformation out there. Things you read about that sound like they might be true. Like if you, as a woman over 50, lift heavy weights, you’ll still get bulky and misshapen like a bodybuilder, so it makes sense to lift lighter weights and do more repetitions.

The fact is that, no matter what age you are, if you’re a woman, lifting heavy weights will not bulk up your muscles. Kristen Turner, a health navigator with Advocate Lutheran General Hospital, says, “Women do not gain muscle mass the same way men do, nor will they “bulk up” through training with challenging heavier weights.” In fact, the Centers for Disease Control recommends that everyone 65 and older include 2 days a week of weight training for their healthy aging. So, yes, I do lift weights at my age (and I’m 67)!

The truth about weightlifting

Yes, I do lift weights at my age! Here's a biceps curl.
Biceps curl with a lunge!

Your strength workout doesn’t have to take forever. In fact, Turner suggests just 8-12 repetitions, 8-10 exercises, that focus on all major muscle groups. The weights you use should be challenging, but not impossible. They shouldn’t be too light, either. Your twice-a-week strength workout will give you improved tone, strength and will help in weight management. The more muscle you have, the more calories and fat you will burn, giving you an overall toned physique. And I’ve found that with strength training comes more stamina. Gravity is evil, but we’re all subject to it. Our strong muscles will help carry us wherever we want to go.

Do I need free weights

You can get a great strength workout using just your own body weight. The plank pose, and all of its variations, will work virtually every muscle in your body. And all you need is the floor. As I mentioned in a previous article, if you can’t do the full plank at first, there’s always a modification. The plank pose works your arms, your shoulders, your core, and your legs.

If you want to go the free weight route at home, like I do, I did a little searching online for prices. These days you can get a pair of 3-, 5- and 8-pound weights and a stand for them for less than $100. These are certainly heavy enough for you to get started, and probably for quite a while after that.

What I do

I work out 4 – 5 days a week. 2 days I run / walk for 20 minutes on the treadmill and do 10 minutes of core work after the run. 1 day a week I do a Pilates routine (30 minutes) with a resistance band, which makes it more challenging. And 2 days a week I do combined aerobics and free weights, 30 – 40 minutes. Yes, I do lift weights at my age!

Get strong for your healthy aging

Don’t be scared of strength training. Lift weights – or at least heavy tomato cans – for your healthy aging.

Yes, you need more sleep

True confession time: I’ll start. I haven’t been sleeping well lately. How about you? If you’re like most Americans you haven’t been getting the prescribed 7 to 9 hours nightly either. (ref: Centers for Disease Control) And, chances are if you are sleeping for 7 hours it may not be good quality. I know when I wake up, the sheets are all twisted and the pillows are often on the floor. (Although that might be from my dog’s wiggling around.) We need good quality sleep for our health and well-being. Back in the early days of the pandemic I wrote that sleep difficulties were common. Things haven’t changed a whole lot in the last couple of years.

What happens when you don’t get enough?

If we don’t get enough zzzz’s, we run the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Sleeping better and for a longer time can help in regulating blood sugar, which is an indicator of diabetes. 

Not getting enough zzz’s has also been linked to obesity. This can have had its roots in childhood – it’s linked to brain development in children and insufficient sleep can adversely affect the hypothalamus which regulates appetite and the expenditure of energy. However, studies have revealed an association between short sleep and excess weight in all ages. So, we’re not exempt from this. If we’re overweight as adults, don’t use the old “I’m too tired to eat right and exercise” excuse!

It’s been suggested that insufficient duration and sleep disorders contribute to depression. The CDC reports that rest disturbance has been a notable symptom of depression, but it could be that other symptoms of depression decrease with better sleep.

No one is exempt

No one is exempt from the need for 7 to 9 hours. Jennifer Lopez related the story of the panic attack she had in the early days of her career brought on by lack of sleep. Now JLo makes sleep a priority. In fact, it’s an important part of her healthy aging routine.

How to sleep better

Exercise during the day can lead to better sleep at night.
Exercise during the day can lead to better sleep at night.

Here are some recommendations from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine on how to get enough, and better quality rest:

  • Be like JLo and prioritize your sleep. Plan on a bedtime that will give you those 7 to 9 hours. Go to bed at the same time every day and wake up at the same time – even on the weekends.
  • Make sure the environment is conducive to sleep. Your room should be comfortable, dark and a good temperature. Most people have better rest when it’s a little cool.
  • If you can’t bear to take electronics out of the bedroom, turn them off a half hour before bed.
  • Don’t eat large meals or drink alcohol just before bed.
  • Exercise: physical activity during the day can help you sleep better.

Even though you may not have known all the implications, this is really nothing very new. Eat right, exercise, and get your 7 to 9 hours a night for healthy aging.

Achieving goals is one route to happiness

What’s your pie-in-the-sky goal?

Achieving goals is one route to happiness. A kiss from Booker is another.
Achieving goals is one route to happiness. A kiss from Booker is another.

What’s your pie-in-the-sky goal? Mine is to get an Agility Championship with my dog. I can’t do it in one, two or five trials. And there’s a lot of training to get done before that goal is even approachable. And that’s the key. Achieving smaller, intermediate goals is the route to happiness.

Of course, life is multi-faceted. There’s work, family, home, hobbies. I advocate setting goals for every facet of life. Last year one of my goals was to make chocolate macarons. I’m not the best baker in the family (that’s my sister) but I did my research and made a batch of really good chocolate macarons. That’s another key to achieving your goals. After you think of something you want to do, figure out if you have the skill sets you need to accomplish it. If you don’t have the skills – right now – then figure out the skills you need and how to go about learning them.

Goals that are just the right size

You know that setting goals is the first step to getting stuff done. (As I wrote in “Set goals – big and little.”) And achieving a goal will certainly give you a sense of satisfaction. Without goals your life can seem directionless. Goals can indeed give your life purpose and direction, but goals that are too strict can be rigid and confining. Similarly, goals that don’t challenge you will leave you feeling incomplete. And setting goals that are too huge can be overwhelming. So, the secret is to set a series of smaller goals that set you on the path to the big goal you really want to attain. Achieving the goals that really matter to you and clarify your path will surely set you on the road to happiness.

Set your intermediate goals

Finding direction for every aspect of your life is the way to a life with purpose. I don’t specifically look for a purpose to my life, but at the same time I don’t want to just drift along aimlessly either. A recent study from the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that more internally motivated workers felt more satisfaction in their roles. We can extrapolate that to everyday life. People who are motivated to do things are probably happier than those who drift along aimlessly. 

Once you have your big goals, set those intermediate goals that will put you on the path to that pie in the sky. Happiness is on that road.

Five ways to maintain positivity

I often write about happiness and optimism, because happy and optimistic people are generally healthier and live longer than those who are unhappy or see the negative in everything. But even when you start the day with a positive outlook, sometimes it can be hard to maintain that optimistic mindset. Here are five ways to maintain positivity.

When the sun is shining it’s easier to be positive and optimistic. Everything looks better when it’s bright outside. But how about when it’s nighttime, or it’s gray and gloomy outside? How can you maintain positivity then?

#1 on the list of How to Maintain Positivity: Smile!
#1 on the list of How to Maintain Positivity: Smile! After a workout, I have a big smile on my face.
  1. Smile. That’s it. Just take a breath and show some teeth. Even if you don’t feel like smiling. When we smile, our brain releases the hormones dopamine and serotonin, associated with happiness and reducing stress. Believe it or not, a study performed by a group at the University of Cardiff at Wales found that people who could not frown due to botox injections were happier on average than those who could frown. So, that’s the “fake it until it comes true” path.
  2. Journal your gratitude or express it in some other way. Say, “Thank you” to more people for even the smallest of favors. There is no place for unhappiness in you when you’re feeling grateful to others. Even having others in your life is something to be happy about.
  3. Take a walk. Increase your oxygen intake. When you breathe more deeply, your body is doing something positive. If you exercise regularly, that “exercise high” you feel lasts longer, plus you’re sleeping better.
  4. Listen to a favorite tune. I keep a playlist of songs that make me feel happy. Listening to one usually does the trick when I’m feeling down. Almost anything by the Zac Brown Band puts a smile on my face and gets my toes tapping.
  5. Meditate. Thinking of absolutely nothing for a few minutes helps me maintain positivity. Just breathe. If that’s hard for you, a short guided meditation will also help clear the cobwebs and help you maintain your positivity. If you’d like to try meditating but don’t know where to start, download the Garden Walk Guided Meditation.

These days, it’s important to grab happiness and optimism wherever you can. Practicing one or more of these techniques will help you maintain your positivity.